Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Proof by a Thousand Assertions 

You've probably already heard about the scurrilous piece of anti-Israel hatchetry thinly disguised as academic claptrap by Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer.

The basic goal of every one of their 83 pages is to convince you that America has been manipulated by the Jewish lobby (AIPAC et al) into taking pro-Israel policies that the two professors feel are totally counter to US interests. While I don't feel any patriotic duty to rise to the defense of AIPAC or lobbyists, they are not the real targets of the paper; they are really only placeholder paper targets for an overwhelming litany of attacks against pretty much everything Israel is and does, and by extension, any action taken in support of it.

I wish I were exaggerating.

It's tempting to simply dismiss their paper, titled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," as little more than a poorly executed Raving Anti-Zionist Blog Carnival -- an 83 page blog carnival to be sure, but one not much deeper or better researched than a concentrated dose of Daily Kos. If that were the whole story then it wouldn't be worth promoting their paper by responding to it.

Unfortunately, its authors have somehow gotten it published on Harvard's stationary and internet servers and present it in the name of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), boilerplate disclaimers notwithstanding. This veneer of authority is what makes a response necessary. I'm sure an overstuffed garbage bag with the KSG logo on it would render some of the garbage inside quotable in today's media. And frankly, I think I'd rather read quotes from stinking garbage than from this piece.

But how to respond?

There have already been a lot of great responses. I particularly enjoyed Martin Kramer's reaction; however, there are a lot of worthy posts on the subject. You can also find convenient roundups at Soccer Dad, Crossing the Rubicon and Little Green Footballs.

With so much already said, and said so well, I only want to add a few small points of my own.

The professors have presented their attack in a very clever form. I might call it proof-by-a-thousand-assertions. They assemble assertion after assertion, each stamped with KSG authority and the authors' personal assurance that they are true, and then count on the cumulative effect to render readers senseless, with agreement by default slipping in soon after.

I believe the professors' next paper, using the same technique, will be called "Santa Claus is Bad for America."

A convincing case against Santa can be made based on nothing but facts.

Snow is cold. Kids get pop guns as presents and grow up violent. A holiday greeter at Walmart noted that people who have beards are generally fanatics. If Santa is pro-American, then why does he live at the North Pole? .... (83 pages later) .... FedEx could just ship the toys and cut out the whole Santa business if it weren't for the elf lobby. Consider how few people actually manage to speak out against Santa to get an idea how insidious his influence is -- in fact we can only pray that this paper itself manages to sneak through his net of influence to someday see the light of day.
And an anti-Santa paper from these guys will only be marginally more convincing than this one.

Unfortunately, however, proof by a thousand assertions is difficult to counter effectively. Not responding to all the assertions allows the professors to dismiss opposition as missing the point, that the idea in general still stands on the weight of so much remaining evidence. But responding to each and every erroneous or misapplied assertion risks making the responder seem petty or obsessed in an agenda-driven way. Even more, I wouldn't be surprised if the paper's authors eventually point to the vast number of refutations as just further proof of the very same vast undue influence they are exposing.

I guess that's a risk we'll have to take.

The response I feel is most philosophically and rhetorically effective is just to clearly state that this paper is a moldering pile of donkey dung that wasn't true when the professors started with their hateful conclusion, and remained equally untrue with each piece of untrue and innappropriate evidence they slapped over it.

When a writer has to explicitly assert that all his assertions are true and uncontroversial, there's probably a reason. When a writer has to remind you he feels that anti-semitism is loathsome, there's probably a reason. When a writer has to add a caveat that there is nothing inherently improper about American Jews attempting to sway US policy like everybody else, there's probably a reason. When a writer has to clarify that his charges of undue Jewish influence are not conspiratorial accusations of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" proportions, there's probably a reason. When a writer has to stipulate that terror attacks against even innocent Israeli civilians are wrong, there's probably a reason.

When a writer has to reassure you he believes Israel has a right to exist, there's probably a reason.

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